This film is held by the BFI (ID: 32354).


Murder and blackmail in an African outpost.



The High Command was Thorold Dickinson’s first directorial venture, and the first and only production of Fanfare Pictures, an offshoot of Associated Talking Pictures.  Rachael Low recounts that ‘[Dickinson] and the Chinese Australian scenarist Gordon Wong Wellesley, who had come to ATP through Hollywood, registered the £2000 company Fanfare Pictures in August 1936 and made one film, The High Command, […which] cost between £15,000 and £20,000’ (Film Making in 1930s Britain, 164). From Dickinson’s recollection 40 years later, the production company sounds like a fairly free and easy unit: ‘A group working in the studio floated their own company, Fanfare Pictures. [Basil] Dean was involved, we were all friendly together and they agreed that should be my first one’ (Film Dope, 7).  The story was a whodunnit with a colonial setting in West Africa, and it seems not to have been taken solemnly.‘Well, of course, it was a silly story’, Dickinson told the Film Dope interviewers, ‘a whodunnit novel they’d bought very cheaply’ (Film Dope Transcript, 24).  There was even ‘a tendency among associates to ridicule the project’ – but this ‘evaporated when the results were shown in the finished film’ (‘Mad Dogs and Location Units’, 49).

Dickinson attributed the success of the film in great part to an eight-week location trip which he undertook with Gordon Wellesley (the producer), John Seago (the production manager), and James E. Rogers (the cameraman for the exterior scenes). He described it vividly in the article ‘Mad Dogs and Location Units’, written for the journal of the film technicians’ union in which he played a leading part.  ‘At the end of August, 1936’, he wrote, ‘Fanfare Pictures sent a small unit to West Africa to shoot scenes, take research stills, study local colour, and bring back props and costumes for their first production, “The High Command”, due on the floor at the Ealing Studios at the beginning of November’ (49). A further purpose of the trip was to shoot a documentary short, but this did not come to fruition. The article describes their travels in Sierra Leone and Nigeria. ‘Facilities in a British colony are only possible by one means’, he noted. ‘Once the Colonial Office had read and approved of the adaptation of our story, facilities were arranged in Africa on a most generous scale. Wherever we went, instructions from the Colonial Office preceded us, and our requests were met with courtesy and despatch’ (51). At one point, ‘In return for two cows and four hundred gallons of native beer (which looks like milky tea and tastes very odd) a pagan chief in the plateau country near Jos summoned 1,500 natives for us at a day’s notice, and staged a dance which lasted far into the night.’ Dickinson concluded that ‘our production was enriched by a number of invaluable shots and a great deal of authentic detail work in settings, story points, acting, and general atmosphere’ (54).



In spite of the location footage, and its mostly African setting, the film enacts a struggle over British identity. It uses Africa chiefly as setting for a battle played out between an old Britain and a newer one, between traditional reserve and sexual licence, between military disciplines and commercial imperatives. Set on the Gold Coast, it brings together elements of documentary realism and filmed theatre, and generically it moves between old-fashioned whodunnit, lively comedy and tragic melodrama. Its sometimes exhilarating stylistic variety is part of a wider ambivalence about modernity and tradition, and about the decencies and corruptions of British colonialism.

The censor at first opposed the project on the grounds that it showed British officers ‘in a most offensive and objectionable light’ as murderers, blackmailers and gamblers (cited in Thorold Dickinson: The Man and His Films, 44). The story entertains the idea that its hero, Major-General Sangye, has murdered his blackmailer and framed an innocent man – and it encourages us, in the regular process of a whodunnit, to imagine the possibility of this criminality and corruption in high places.  So far, so ‘offensive and objectionable’. But the unfolding plot takes a very different turn.  Sangye is vindicated, he emerges as a nobly self-sacrificing father, and is allowed the directing hand in the denouement by which the real villain is unmasked. However, he has to pay for his compromised past by his own death, an atonement that symbolically suggests a reckoning with what was shady in the British military and colonial past.  But The High Command gives us only a partial and forgiving version of colonial wrongdoing. There may be patriarchal skeletons in the closet, the story suggests, but they are not matter for real moral disgrace; and the ruling classes can be left to police themselves. The blackmail relates to affairs of the heart fifteen years earlier, not to things as they now are, so there is no social urgency to the revelation of his crime of honour.

The colonial presence is not a homogeneous or harmonious one in this film, with the General standing on the side of military tradition, and the odious factory-owning Martin Cloam (‘a common trader’, according to Sangye) representing the newer power of trade and commerce.Cloam is British in the original story, but becomes foreign in the screen treatment – just as the tyrannical husband would do three years later in Dickinson’s adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight. He and his wife (played by Hungarian and German actors) have strong central European accents, which makes this a story about European Africa as well as British Africa (it seldom attempts to be a film about the Africa of its original inhabitants).  This triangulation is instrumental in keeping the film thematically interested in the idea of the imperial British under threat away from ‘home’ – at first in the vivid prologue set in Ireland 1921, then in the main plot in West Africa. Its  interest seems to lie in the psychology of a nation under attack rather than in the corruptions of authority exerted.  The British stronghold in The High Command is a military fort, stationed on an island, therefore doubly separated from the mainland by walls and water. Cloam sailing by night to the fort is filmed as if he were Dracula, creeping in at the unsecured casement. It works as a spatially eloquent image of British vulnerability in this period of imperial fragility and diminution, and perhaps the sense of threat – and its characterisation as European – belong to the 1930s moment as much as to the apparent setting.

Graham Greene’s review of the film astutely hailed Thorold Dickinson as an important new director, and singled out one of its scenes:

‘What will remain longest in my memory is the little scene in the Club when the band breaks into ‘God Save The King’ for the Governor, just as the evening wind begins to blow: the black servants start towards the flapping shutters and banging doors and then, seeing the rigidity of their masters, leap to attention while the tune penetrates fitfully through the din of the Hammatan: ‘happy and glorious’, the potted palms bend towards the floor, the great green lights swing above the billiard-table, ‘long to reign over us’, the wind smashes through the clubroom and British West Africa comes alive as it never did in Mr Korda’s lavish and unimaginative Sanders of the River.’

This scene which Greene describes is also a virtuoso sonic composition, working in a confident experimental spirit with the new possibilities of sound film.  The film’s technique here seems to be on the side of these winds of change blowing through the colonial club.

Peter Swaab (2010)


Works Cited

David Badder and Bob Baker, ‘Interview with Thorold Dickinson’ and biofilmography, Film Dope, No. 11 (Jan. 1977), 1–21 and 38–39.

Thorold Dickinson, ‘Mad Dogs and Location Units’, The Ciné-Technician, No. 3 (June–July 1937), 56–7, reprinted in Thorold Dickinson: a world of film, edited by Philip Horne and Peter Swaab (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008), 49-54.

Typed transcript of unedited Film Dope interview (1976), BFI Special Collections, Thorold Dickinson Collection, Box 49, Item 1.

Graham Greene, review of The High Command, in Night and Day, 29 July 1937, reprinted in The Pleasure Dome: Collected Film Criticism 1935–40 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 156–160 (157); cited in Peter Swaab,   

‘Dickinson’s Africa: The High Command and Men of Two Worlds’, in Thorold Dickinson: a world of film, 173-188 (177).

Rachael Low, Film Making in 1930s Britain (London: Allen & Unwin, 1985).

Jeffrey Richards, Thorold Dickinson: The Man and His Films (London, Sydney and Wolfeboro, NH: Croom Helm, 1986); reissued in the USA as Thorold Dickinson and the British Cinema(The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series, 1997).




Technical Data

Running Time:
88 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
7990 ft

Production Credits

Sound Recording
DALBY, Stephen
Art Director
PAUL, R. Holmes
Author of the Original Work
cast member
cast member
ATWILL, Lionel
cast member
BATTY, Archibald
cast member
GERAY, Steven
cast member
GIBSON, Kathleen
cast member
cast member
cast member
HOWE, Cyril
cast member
cast member
KNAGGS, Skelton
cast member
LAMBERT, Michael
cast member
cast member
MASON, James
cast member
PATCH, Wally
cast member
cast member
cast member
cast member
cast member
WELLS, Deering
cast member
WILLS, Drusilla
Costume Designer
MEADE, Walter
Director of Photography
Director of Photography
ROGERS, James E.
Director of Photography
COLE, Sidney
IRVING, Ernest
Production Company
Associated British Film Distributors
Production Company
Fanfare Pictures
Production Manager
DIXON, Cecil
Production Team
STRUEBY, Katherine
Sound Engineer
WISER, Paul F.
Ealing Studios